Tamaki takes on big role

A "band geek" in high school, never involved in team sports, and an instinctive follower are how freshman Kristi Tamaki described herself before she came to Seattle.

Hailing from sunny San Diego, Calif., this 4-foot-11-inch, 113-pound, 19-year-old college freshman may not have pictured herself as much of a leader back then, but times have changed.

Tomorrow, Tamaki will be leading as coxswain of the SPU women’s varsity eight boat, ranked second in the National Collegiate Athletic Association West Region and first in their Division II heat, as they compete at the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships at Lake Natoma in Sacramento, Calif.

According to crew head coach Keith Jefferson, Tamaki will be steering a 61-inch-long shell (boat) with a three-inch rudder. She must also watch out for other boats and weather hazards, keep track of stroke rates, make sure each rower in her boat is on pace, as well as ensuring the rowers technique and timing are on, said Jefferson.

Tamaki has a tough job, Jefferson said, one that he compares to someone steering a car with just their voice.

"The coxswains must be really sharp mentally and be significant multi-taskers. Kristi has a great start on this, and I’m confident she will be a great coxswain for the program."

Tamaki may not be a follower when it comes to her role on the SPU crew team, but it wasn’t exactly what she’d planned on when she first joined.

"I started out trying to be a rower," Tamaki said. "But I just happen to be the perfect size for a coxswain."

Tamaki said she came to practice in the fall, intent on working hard and showing her coaches she could be a rower, but in the end her coaches urged her to fill the empty spot at the front of the women’s varsity eight boat.

It was hard to accept at first, said Tamaki, but by winter quarter, "I just started to focus on being a coxswain."

Tamaki said she had some help adjusting to her new position.

Her stroke seat (the first person facing her in the shell), junior Rachel Savage, was very encouraging, said Tamaki.

"I think that Kristi is naturally a sort of quieter person and as coxswain you have to tell everyone what to do, and I don’t know if she liked that aspect of it at first," Savage said.

Savage said that as Tamaki’s stroke seat, it is her job to help her watch out for other boats and obstacles. At the beginning of the year, Savage said that there were a few collisions.

"I think the hardest part of being a coxswain is when you get into a difficult situation and you have to make a decision, while moving at a high speed, to avoid any problems," Savage said. "Her reaction time has gotten much faster. I feel really safe with her."

Savage said that in the past she has been used to having a coxswain with a lot more experience than herself and that working with a novice coxswain has been a big change, but in her mind, a positive one.

"It’s been good because it makes me be more aware and a more active member of the boat than in the past," Savage said.

Tamaki is very accepting of feedback and humble about receiving pointers from her teammates and coaches, said Savage. Earlier in her career, while working with veteran coxswains, Savage said she was too intimidated to offer feedback. Because Tamaki is so open to it, Savage said she thinks it makes their boat more connected as a group.

"That shows real maturity," Savage said.

While adjusting to her new leadership role as varsity coxswain, Tamaki has also been adjusting to her new surroundings.

"I love going out in the city, exploring, and shopping, of course," Tamaki said with a hearty smile.

Reading, playing piano, Jai Thai, and black coffee are also on her list of favorites.

Never having tasted the spicy flavor of Thai food before coming to Seattle, Tamaki said she is now a big fan.

Her studies are one of her great passions as well. She is a nutrition major on the dietetics track.

"I love reading about what’s good for you. I read pretty much anything that has to do with nutrition; it’s just so exciting," Tamaki said.

Despite trying, Tamaki said it has been harder this spring to find time to explore her surroundings due to her responsibilities with school and crew. She tries to get her homework done and go to bed at 8:30 each night, which she admits, is a challenge in itself.

But it’s worth it to be able to get up at 4:30 a.m. for practice, said Tamaki.

Each morning before practice, she checks her team’s boat to make sure the bolts are tight, the seats are secure, and the bow light is working. She also has a meeting with her coaches to discuss the day before and what needs to be worked on in practice.

"It’s not required of every coxswain, but there’s a lot of room to spend time outside of practice preparing as well," Tamaki said. "We can have boat meetings, set goals of times we want to meet, and break down each new course."

She consistently goes beyond her job description, according to Jefferson.

"That she does the workouts and even some of the painful testing with them [the rowers] when not required to is commendable to the extreme," Jefferson said.

"I think that it makes her a lot more in tune with us and gives us even more respect for her," Savage said.

Tamaki is modest at most about her extra efforts, but she doesn’t hold back when talking about the high points of competition.

"On race days, you just have that adrenaline. I just get so energized, and it’s exciting to motivate them [the rowers] throughout the race," Tamaki said.

She knows what works when it comes to getting her boat motivated.

"One thing that they like, when we are going into our final 250 meters, is when I say, ‘up two and two with ramming speed’ [increase pressure and speed into sprint in next two strokes] or ’empty out your tank and give everything you’ve got,’" Tamaki said, eyes gleaming.

Savage said that the latter of the two calls reminds the boat that they want to finish the race feeling like they have nothing else to give.

"I like how Kristi doesn’t sound the same every time," Savage said. "The tone of her voice and the specific things she’ll say to us varies. She’s working with us, not just feeding us stuff. It feels like it’s coming from the heart."

The young coxswain will get another opportunity to put her new skills and motivating words to the test tomorrow as she leads the women’s varsity eight boat up against rival Humboldt State.

Tamaki may still be getting used to the idea of herself as a leader, but she has embraced her role as coxswain and has three more years ahead of her to grow.

"As her confidence builds, so does our confidence in her ability," Savage said.

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Title: Tamaki takes on big role | Author: Ashley Sweeney | Section: Sports | Published Date: 2008-04-30 | Internal ID: 6476